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Vintage Cars: History of the Automobile

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 15 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Vintage Cars: History Of The Automobile

The German engine designer Karl Benz is often cited as the inventor of the automobile. In 1886 he was awarded a patent for the first automobile to run on gasoline and ten years later he was awarded another for his creation of the first ever combustion flat (or ‘boxer’) engine. This engine was designed so that all the pistons and piston motion were retained on a flat plane – a design that is still very much in evidence even today.

In addition to Benz, several other German engineers were working on their own designs during this same era. In 1890 Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach founded the Daimler Motor Company, which in the years to follow would produce many vehicles under the Daimler brand.

1890 also saw the production of motor vehicles get underway in France, where automobiles were fitted with Daimler engines. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1894, that the first petrol powered car was produced in Great Britain, called The Stantler, using a single cylinder engine. However, this was not a production car.

Automobile Construction Lines

Despite many previously failed attempts, there hadn’t been any successful production runs of petrol-powered vehicles until 1897, when the Daimler Motor Company started producing its first vehicles. By 1900, the year of Daimler’s death, larger-scale production was underway in both France and the United States. Engineers continued to innovate, and it was at this time Maybach developed a new engine that was to be named Daimler-Mercedes, later giving rise to the Mercedes Benz brand of cars.

In an attempt to produce affordable cars on a scale that met increasing demand, during 1902 an American named Ransom Olds developed the production-line process of automobile manufacturing. In 1908, Henry Ford, owner of the Ford Motor Company, had just introduced the Ford Model-T. This was a pioneering car, which included many technological advances with respect to engine, transmission and suspension design. Ford perfected the production line technique and by 1913 had incorporated moving belts into his factories to keep manufacturing speeds high, and costs low. By 1914 over a quarter of a million cars had been produced and sold, and just two years later this number had practically doubled. Henry Ford became known as the “father of modern assembly lines.”

The Vintage Car Era

Before the First World War, cars were considered to be a luxury - owned by the prosperous and fortunate, but by the end of the era, as the Great Depression took its grip, the motor car had ensconced itself as a necessity and everyday accessory in any given part of the civilised world.

The vintage era is so significant to the history of the automobile, as it saw some of the most radical mechanical and stylistic changes. In the UK in particular, there was a significant cross-over in the manufacturing process, from meticulous craftsmanship to American-inspired assembly lines. Some argue that from this point on, the quality of car manufacturing began to decline.

Changing economic status and social attitudes were shaped by the ever-increasing popularity of the car throughout the vintage era. Yet vice versa, increasingly the cars were designed to fit in with the transformations of everyday living, and the desire to have the biggest, best, most comfortable and fastest motor around.

Luxury cars gave way to lighter 'utility' cars, but the need for speed in turn meant that manufacturers needed to find a common ground between the heavier luxury cars, and the lighter and somewhat slower utility cars. These came in the shape of tourers – available in the guise of both fast tourers and family tourers - as well as the slightly more specialist sports car.

Each advance in the car's ability to adapt to these new modes of living brought with them a multitude of engineering problems, some of which could – and did - make or break the manufacturer. A great example of this is the introduction of synchromesh gearboxes.The necessity of double de-clutching, required to change gears with early sliding-mesh gearboxes, was both inconvenient and problematic for drivers. Improving transmission systems was a critical point of development during the vintage car era. The constant-mesh gearboxes of 1923, proved to be an improvement. They were far quieter and used stronger helical gears as opposed to sliding spur gears.

However, the driver still had to employ double de-clutching techniques to change gear. This remained a problem that wasn’t solved until the introduction of the far more user-friendly synchromesh gearboxes, as used in the Cadillac of 1928. These finally enabled effortless gear changes – without the need to double de-clutch.

Such improvements during the vintage era made way for the complete luxury, comfort and convenience that is so expected in today’s cars. However much we are accustomed to such functionality, there is something really special about the golden era of motoring. Whether it’s the seemingly basic mechanics coupled with out-and-out style, or the excitement of the fast-paced and continual engineering developments, the vintage era can be looked back upon as a time of both mechanical pioneering and stylish innovation.

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